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Tampa, Fla. — Jon Cooper, the Lightning's coach, is experiencing his second consecutive playoffs.

But there's already a big difference in Cooper's mind.

"I would probably have come up last year and be a little bit nervous," Cooper said before a big media contingent after Thursday's morning skate. "Now it's like having you for dinner."

Cooper attended Cooley Law School in Lansing after graduating from Hofstra (where he played lacrosse), and coached Lansing Catholic Central in his spare time.

He ultimately left his career in law and went into coaching, moving up the ladder from the United States Hockey League (USHL) to American League (AHL) to the Lightning.

The Lightning were swept in the first round of the playoffs last season by Montreal, after losing goalie Ben Bishop late in the regular season and having Steven Stamkos return after missing 55 games with a knee injury.

"We just grinded it out and it was a little bit of a Cinderella regular season," Cooper said. "By the time we got to the playoffs, it was almost like we were happy to get there.

"Our playoffs were fleeting; we were in and out before we could blink our eyes. That was a sting.

"We are way more prepared (this season). I'm more prepared. I know the coaches, I know the players and the league, and so do our players."

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has respect for Cooper, who has won at every level and appears to have the Lightning on the right track for success in the forseeable future.

"Coop is like a lot of guys, maybe in the media not an instant sensation, but he had to earn his way here and that's what he did," Babcock said. "He decided he loved hockey more than he loved law. He's been successful.

"When you look at guys that are serial winners, where he goes, he wins."

Getting healthy

The Lightning are apparently getting healthier just as their opening-round series against the Red Wings begins.

Defensemen Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr and forward Alex Killorn, all of whom missed games late in the season, were in the lineup for Game 1.

Defenseman Jason Garrison, who has been out since colliding with Justin Abdelkader on March 28, skated Thursday and appears to be close to a return.

With the Lightning's depth, those three players returning for Game 1 made for some tough personnel decisions.

One scratch was forward Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick in the 2013 entry draft who is clawing to earn regular playing time with the deep Lightning.

"Regardless of who is in or out, there's different reasons why," Cooper said, "whether it's matchups or injury-related. There could be a whole bunch of things why guys are out.

"One thing about the playoffs, it's a team, 20 guys are taking the ice. But it may not be the same fit, the same 20 guys, the next night. But we feel this gives us the best chance to win."

Ice chips

Defenseman Nikita Nesterov is a rookie who gained playing time the second half of the season, played particularly well the final few weeks and earned a spot in the Game 1 lineup.

"You never want to see guys get hurt, but the door opens for somebody else and that was Nesty," Cooper said. "He just took baby steps, and all of a sudden, he starts to get a taste and he starts to like what he's tasting."

… Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said his line with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, one of the most consistently productive lines in the NHL, clicked early.

"We work well together, all three of us compete hard and all of us are very competitive," Johnson said. "We have chemistry, we know where each of us is going to be on the ice and that makes the game easier for us."

… Johnson's parents managed the rink in Spokane, Washington, where Babcock's Western League junior team practiced.

"He allowed me to come on the ice a couple of times after the Chiefs finished practice when I was 5 or 6 years old," Johnson said.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

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